Aggression In Children Based On Varying Causes

Connie K. Ho for — Your Universe Online

A study from Penn State recently revealed that children are aggressive for different reasons.

The researchers found that some aggressive kindergarteners have low verbal abilities, while others can be aroused physiologically quickly. The findings from the study show that different types of treatment need to be developed for children who have problematic behavior for various causes.

“Aggressive responses to being frustrated are a normal part of early childhood, but children are increasingly expected to manage their emotions and control their behavior when they enter school,” explained Lisa Gatzke-Kopp, an assistant professor of human development and family studies at Penn State, in a prepared statement. “Kids who don’t do this well, who hit their classmates when they are frustrated or cause other types of disturbances in the classroom, are at especially high risk for long-term consequences including delinquency, violence, dropping out of school, abusing substances and even suicide. Research tells us that the earlier we can intervene, the better the chances of getting these children back on track.”

In the study, a group of kindergarten teachers from 10 elementary schools in the Harrisburg School District of Pennsylvania were asked to evaluate the aggressive behaviors of their children on a six-point scale. They were asked to rate items like “cruelty, bullying or meanness to other,” and getting into “many fights.” The team of investigators then used this data to find a group of high-risk children and low-risk children to be part of different neurobiological measures. 207 children were in the high-risk group, while 132 children were in the low-risk group. The scientists hoped to explore why aggressive children feel and control their emotions in a different manner than students who are not aggressive.

With the help of standardized tests, the researchers were able to determine the children´s academic and cognitive skills along with their memory, spatial reasoning, and vocabulary level. The teachers also provided evaluations of each child´s behavior, looking specifically at their disobedience, sadness and aggression, as well as social skills and self-control.

Apart from the input from the teachers, the scientists utilized a mobile research laboratory that could measure the children´s brain functioning. The teams were able to look at a child´s heart rate and skin conductance activity in correspondence to a task that brought out an emotional response. The children were shown clips of a cartoon character with different emotions like anger, fear, happiness and sadness.

With these various tools, the study allowed researchers to explore the cognitive and emotional processing of children with aggressive behaviors. Based on the findings, 90 percent of the aggressive kids in the study were shown as having low verbal skills and being easily aroused physiologically. The first group of kids was thought to have low levels of cognitive function, less ability in executive function skills and lower verbal ability.

“What we may be seeing is that there are at least two different routes through which a child may act aggressively,” noted Gatzke-Kopp in the statement. “Because these are very different processes, these children may need different approaches to changing their behavior.”

Based on the findings, the researchers believe that children need to acquire verbal skills to understand the perspective of adults as well as to have a form of communication apart from hitting other people. Children also need to develop cognitive skills and executive function skills, so that they can understand that there are alternative options to fighting and hitting.

“This group of kids may be functioning at a cognitive level that is more akin to a preschooler than a kindergartner,” Gatzke-Kopp said. “They have a harder time extracting what other people are feeling. They don’t have a nuanced sense of emotions; everything is either happy or sad to them. So they might not be as good at recognizing how their behavior is making another child feel. They may literally have a hard time ‘using their words,’ so hitting becomes an easier solution when they are frustrated.”

Even though the other group of kids had strong verbal and cognitive function, they reacted emotionally more often and had more stressors in their everyday life.

“These children may be able to tell you that if somebody pushed them on the playground they would go get a teacher, but the push happens and they kind of lose it and it doesn’t matter what they should do, they just act on impulse,” concluded Mark Greenberg, a professor of human development and family studies and psychology at Penn State, in the statement. “One possibility is that the threshold for managing frustration is quite low for these kids. So what we might consider a minor annoyance to them is a major threat. When they are calm they function very well, but when they lose control of their emotions, they can’t control their behavior.”

In terms of moving forward with the project, the team of investigators will focus on studying the effects of intervention on different groups during kindergarten and first grade.

The results were published in a recent edition of Development and Psychopathology.

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